Funny how people use convoluted language when their motives are convoluted. One of the great benefits of looking extra closely at what organisations say is that they often give away their ulterior intentions by the way they put words together. 

Far be it from me to accuse of duplicity the pioneering folk who are building the much-vaunted railway line called, for short, ‘HS2’ – the second phase, linking London with Birmingham, of the high-speed line with a longer trajectory that one day, we’re assured, will take passengers from Dover to Scotland with hitherto unattained rapidity.

I’ve always had reservations about this great engineering project.  I had thought that a satisfactory rail service already existed between London and Birmingham. It’s the next stage, from Birmingham to Leeds and beyond, that needs addressing, surely?  And aren’t there objections to the destruction the new works will cause in the countryside, the ancient forests razed to the ground, the precious natural habitats destroyed?  

The Wildlife Trust issued a report on the subject early this year, highlighting these issues. HS2 responded in February with a refutation of those criticisms with a specimen of prose that, I thought, unintentionally told us quite a lot about its way of thinking. Here’s part of it: ‘We’re committed to reviewing our assessment methodology on an ongoing basis and intend to align more closely with the Government’s biodiversity metric once it is published in the coming month.’  

As a neutral observer, wishing simply to understand the issues and reach a conclusion as to whether or not to support the project, I note at once that phrase ‘our assessment methodology’. This, being interpreted, means ‘our way of assessing’. A ‘methodology’ is ‘a system of methods and rules,’ as Chambers defines it, ‘applicable to research or work in a given science or art’, and we should perhaps be grateful for so much care and attention. But the long technical term makes me uneasy, and I become suspicious. The first-person plural ‘we’ is that well-known modern weasel term suggesting a cosy band of benevolent workers ‘committted’ to the public good, rather than the trained professional and commercial body in charge of an efficient operation – or, more probably, a group of investors hoping to make as much money as possible out of the scheme. They aim to ‘align more closely with the Government’s biodiversity metric’- in other words, to conform to Government-approved standards for the protection (or measured removal) of wild life, both flora and fauna.

A ‘biodiversity metric’ sounds beautifully professional, but the lay reader of this communication might well wonder what it actually means. ‘On an ongoing basis’ is a rather woolly modern cliché meaning ‘continuous’ and is used to suggest, with suitable seriousness, the permanent and vigorous activity of qualified personnel. We hope that is indeed what it does mean. 

The cold application of pseudo-technical language conveys priorities that seem at odds with the complex reality of the natural world, and indeed with our own human condition. It definitely suggests that ulterior motives are being concealed in it. Please tell us what you mean in clear, unpatronising English, and we’ll all be grateful!   

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